Costumes combined with hair and makeup have a huge impact on telling the story of the script. The audience knows who the characters are with the help of costumes. We help tell the story. — Mary Zophres, Costume Designer, Babylon

When it comes to fashioning a film, Mary Zophres is a major player in the ranks of Hollywood costume designers. An Art History major from Vassar, Zophres aspired to work in film after graduating from college, eventually landing a nonpaying opportunity, as a way to get her foot in the door.

Meanwhile, Zophres waitressed at the Hilton and bartended at the Waldorf Astoria. In route between jobs, she would pass the flagship store of fashion designer Norma Kamali on 56th street. Inspired by video displays in the window, she decided to apply for a job working on fashion videos, with the hopes of segueing into film full time.

Her persistence paid off and she eventually landed her first costuming gig.

“I got my first job in the costume department as a PA (personal assistant) on ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ and from there worked my way up,” Zophres explains. “I was an assistant costume designer to Judy Ruskin and Richard Hornung for several years and then I got my first costume design job on PCU.”

Fast-forward to today, Zophres is at the top of her game—costuming blockbuster films including La La Land”, “Iron Man 2”, and “Catch Me If You Can”. A testament to her design prowess is her latest film “Babylon”, which chronicles the rise and fall of Hollywood actors in the 1920s during the transition from silent to sound films. For the film, Zophres and her team, which included an assistant costume designer, costume supervisor, cutter/fitters and distressing artists, created more than 7000 costumes. She also worked with Los Angeles-based artisans, specializing in tailoring, millinery, embroidery and hand beading.

The myriad looks featured in the film captured the zeitgeist of the 1920s—an era known for drop-waist dresses, embellished evening wear, fur coats, and cloche hats. Her stellar work on the film has secured her a Critics’ Choice Movie Award nomination for Best Costume Design alongside Academy Award-winning designers Catherine Martin (Elvis) and Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever).

I recently caught up with Zophres to learn more about her work as a costume designer and what it was like to costume “Babylon”:

Are you inspired by other costume designers or classic films in your work, if so, which ones?

Absolutely! I’m inspired so much both by my peers who are working today and by classic films, there are too many to list. I just recently watched “Rear Window” and Grace Kelly’s costumes are fabulous.

You’ve worked on major Blockbusters including “La La Land”, “Iron Man 2”, and “Catch Me If You Can”. What is your process for costuming a film?

I always start by immersing myself in research and finding inspiration. My next step is to break down the script which helps me internalize the script and the character arcs, and ideas for the film. I like to create boards for the different characters in the film and the ideas for looks for the background in the film. I sketch when I know I will be building the costumes. Then I start the hands on process of gathering fabrics and the costumes, and then costume fittings.

The 1920s are often considered the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is the era that “Babylon” is set. How did you research and prepare for costuming this film?

We researched extensively for this film, using source material, photographs, movie posters, silent films, magazines. I gathered thousands of pictorial references for Babylon and we covered the walls in our offices with them. I was totally immersed.

Describe the impact that costume design has on telling a story and bringing the character to life.

I think costumes combined with hair and make up have a huge impact on telling the story of the script. The audience knows who the characters are with the help of costumes. We help tell the story.

Where do you find inspiration when designing for a film?

Inspiration can come from anywhere- but it always starts with the script, the research, the director, the actors who are portraying the characters and the sets.

How much influence do the actors have in the costuming process, and how do they inspire your work?

I find it more challenging to create the character boards if I do not know who is playing the role. I always want to make sure that the actors feel like they’re characters. They often find a portal into their characters during their costume fitting and when they put the costume on. My goal is to make them feel like their character in their costume. The fitting process is very organic and I always welcome feedback.

Often, I have been working on the film for much longer than the actor has been cast. I have had a lot more time to immerse myself in the research so they are open to my interpretation and open to my ideas and I am open to theirs. In other words, it’s very collaborative. My favorite part of my job is to watch an actor transform into their character in the fitting room!

What was your favorite piece to design in “Babylon”?

I have a lot of favorites! Nellie’s opening outfit, the dress she wears to the Hearst party, all of Lady Fay’s costumes, Estelle’s silk velvet gown and cape, Elinor’s costumes, Jack’s costumes, Sydney’s dancers, the Spider girls, I cannot decide!

If you could work with any filmmaker or actor, past or present, who would it be and why?

There are so many! One for sure is Wong Kar-wai. His films are deeply felt and beautiful.

“Babylon” is in theaters Friday Dec. 23, 2022. Photo Credits: Scott Garfield, Paramount Pictures Sketches courtesy of Mary Zophres.